Crossing the Distance Between Fact and Truth in a Story About Love and Exile
Yara Zgheib on Writing a Truthful Fiction About—and Amid—a Travel Ban
There is a distance between fact and truth; a giant, ocean-wide space between knowing and understanding, touching, feeling, loving; between the color orange and tasting one, ripe to burst; between headshots and faces, headlines and lifelines and the lives of real people; between my social security number and the scent of jasmine and apples that has defined me much longer.
To cross that enormous distance between fact and truth, some people make graphs. Some make art and statues. Some make music. Some make love, and poems. Zadie Smith said: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it.” I have lived in many different places, where I have been different people. I have always lived in words, and in them have never been a stranger. I read and write to make sense of the world, to love it, live in it. Same thing. So I will try to tell the truth with words. First, the facts:
Once upon a time, there were two people.
Once upon a time the only view was good and the only way was forward. The two people loved each other, married, came to America. They had twins. Shortly after, one of them had to leave the country to renew a visa. While he was away, someone else issued an executive order. Those are the facts.
A few more: my name is Yara, and I have a letter “Y” drawn on the inside of one arm by a beauty-spot constellation. My husband has a beauty spot in the center of his back. In 2019, when he left Boston, the carry-on he took was silver. Because he would only be gone a few days. When he called to tell me he could not return to America, I was in the kitchen, holding Michaël, the second of our two children. Camille, his twin sister, was in the crib, screaming in unison. Now the truth: My name is Yara, and I wrote No Land to Light On, which is… a work of fiction.
The book is about two Syrian immigrants separated by a travel ban. The book is not about that; it is about love.
There is a scene in the story where Sama is in her bedroom, supposedly packing:
She was allowed one suitcase, twenty-three kilograms, and one carry-on item. Whatever they would fit, she could take. She stared at the piles of clothes and books and letters on the bed, the chair, the floor, at the seventeen years of items and living she had gathered.
I know how she felt. I know that twisting feeling she had in her stomach. Boston, on the fourth of May. 18:09 departure from Logan. Two bags, twenty-three kilograms each. I packed one for me; clothes, books, letters; and one of preemie onesies, little hats, socks, mittens, sweaters… and flew to Lebanon with Camille and Michaël, American citizens, NICU graduates whose lungs had just been cleared for plane travel, and the bravest, most resilient, beautiful children I know. Their father met us on the other side of the ocean. Their father who had promised he’d be back, “assemble the crib, […] all would be well, and duty-free Baci chocolates.”The facts are the facts. This book is the truth, I hope. It is fiction.
I know how Sama felt in that NICU, loving her child through the wall of an incubator. I know how Hadi did, in that interrogation room, or on that plane, hearing the sick thud of the door shutting. Scared and stranded. Betrayed, horribly. Helpless. Fragile. Less than human. Responsible for a child whose future was jeopardized because his parents had the wrong papers. Anger, of the sort that makes you want to run, run, run at breakneck speed… but where? Lebanon had stopped being home long ago, and the U.S. did not want us back.
We spent a year in “administrative processing.” That is not a place, or a life. I once read about the “cliff-hanging experience of exile.” That seems more accurate.
I read and wrote that year. And walked, because I could not run, or fly away. I read the news, decrees, executive orders, the fine print on government websites, the entirety of the Immigration and Nationality Act. I memorized Section 221(g): “No visa or other documentation shall be issued to an alien …” Alien. No, an animal, pacing, walking, every day, on the same looping path that began and ended at my parents’ apartment. I walked with the mountain to my right; Sannine, snowcapped, then not, then white again; the sea to my left; and overhead, the sky, piercing blue, even at seven AM I walked with Lucky, the dog, then; with Camille or Michaël strapped to my chest at four. And at one, two, four in the morning, I walked alone.
By day, midway, I would stop at Elias’s convenience store, by the church, for an apple. When the savings we were living on got too low, I no longer bought the apple, but still stopped to say hello. Elias liked the kids—not Lucky—and he sometimes offered me the apple. I said no, in the beginning. And walked and read and wrote a memoir that was searing, bleeding, heavy. And by the time I finished, I was saying yes to the apple; we had run out of money.
And were broken, and had broken the lease on the Boston apartment we were not living in, and my mother had had to fly there—she had a visa—to pack, sell, donate what she could. The grace of the removed: stuff is just stuff. Two hired men and a truck took the rest away; it was just stuff to them too.
And then there was nothing left there and still nothing here from the embassy, and there was no one to call; “no heroes are coming.” And in any case, my heart was hoarse. And there was nowhere to go, run, fly away, land. And I so I walked.
And read and wrote to stay alive. I read Kafka. And Sebald, Ondaatje, Gallant, Camus, Zweig, Saint-Exupéry. Frankl, about people who didn’t have my view of the stars, mountain, sea. Seghers, about the man who died and spent years,
I read my life in other people’s words, and in other people’s stories, I read about real hell, windowless rooms and low ceilings, tents, dinghies. I began looking up, really, as I walked, seeing the hundreds, thousands, like me, trapped under the wrong stars, by the wrong set of labels, but—
I could actually see the stars. Even night blue in Beirut is piercing. Ahead, the light on my parents’ balcony; for me, they left it on.
And began writing the book a second time, as fiction. Still bleeding, heavy, grieving the savings, career, home, friends, future lost, then our visas were issued; we received a text: “Come pick them up,” through a slit under a tinted glass window, on a counter, outside the consular building, and we returned to Boston.
“Where have you been?”
The doorman at the Liberty hotel, aptly named, where I used to write in the lobby. For hours, every day. The staff was always kind. They knew I was not a guest. They also gave me apples.
“We haven’t seen you for a while!”
A year, I wanted to say. He smiled and opened the door for me, both doors. I stood, stunned, for a moment. I was not used to that anymore. The lady at reception:
“You’re back! We’ve missed you. Where were you?”
Away. I wrote the book a third time, and it was not heavy.
Not searing, bleeding, because I am no longer angry, not suffering; I learned the difference between freedom and liberty. Not a memoir, because I am not unique; there are so many stories, faces we do or do not see; on screens or behind laws, on either side of seas and oceans and borders; in that shattered, displaced space, suspended, mid-air. The facts are the facts. This book is the truth, I hope. It is fiction. A love story about those with “no land to light on,” who “look back without nostalgia, and look forward with a frayed hope.” Ondaatje wrote that.
Yara Zgheib’s No Land to Light On is available now via Atria Books.